We’ve all heard this one: when you drink a glass of water, that water has already been through a bunch of other people’s digestive tracts. Maybe Attila the Hun’s or Vlad the Impaler’s; maybe even a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s.
Well, the same thing is true of stars and matter. All the matter we see around us here on Earth, even our own bodies, has gone through at least one cycle of stellar birth and death, maybe more. But which type of star?
That’s what a team of researchers at ETH Zurich (Ecole polytechnique federale de Zurich) wanted to know.
Perhaps the greatest discovery to come from the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (ca. 1960 to 1975) was the realization that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) exists at the center of our galaxy. In time, scientists came to realize that similarly massive black holes were responsible for the extreme amounts of energy emanating from the active galactic nuclei (AGNs) of distant quasars.
Given their sheer size, mass, and energetic nature, scientists have known for some time that some pretty awesome things take place beyond the event horizon of an SMBH. But according to a recent study by a team of Japanese researchers, it is possible that SMBHs can actually form a system of planets! In fact, the research team concluded that SMBHs can form planetary systems that would put our Solar System to shame!
370 light years away from us, a solar system is making baby planets. The star at the center of it all is young, only about 6 million years old. And its babies are two enormous planets, likely both gas giants, nursing on gaseous matter from the star’s circumsolar disk.
According to widely-accepted theories, the Solar System formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago from a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. Nebular Theory). This process began when the nebula experienced a gravitational collapse in the center that became our Sun. The remaining dust and gas formed a protoplanetary disk that (over time) accreted to form the planets.
However, scientists remain unsure about when organic molecules first appeared in our Solar System. Luckily, a new study by an international team of astronomers may be able to help answer that question. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA), the team detected complex organic molecules around the young star V883 Ori, which could someday lead to the emergence of life in that system.
New research from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope is dampening some of the enthusiasm in the search for life. Observations by both ‘scopes suggest that the raw materials necessary for life may be rare in solar systems centered around red dwarfs.
And if the raw materials aren’t there, it may mean that many of the exoplanets we’ve found in the habitable zones of other stars just aren’t habitable after-all.
The theory of how planets form has been something of an enduring mystery for scientists. While astronomers have a pretty good understanding of where planetary systems comes from – i.e. protoplanetary disks of dust and gas around new stars (aka. “Nebular Theory“) – a complete understanding of how these discs eventually become objects large enough to collapse under their own gravity has remained elusive.
But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from France, Australia and the UK, it seems that the missing piece of the puzzle may finally have been found. Using a series of simulations, these researchers have shown how “dust traps” – i.e. regions where pebble-sized fragments could collect and stick together – are common enough to allow for the formation of planetesimals.
Until recently, the process by which protoplanetary disks of dust and gas aggregate to form peddle-sized objects, and the process by which planetesimals (objects that are one hundred meters or more in diameter) form planetary cores, have been well understood. But the process that bridges these two – where pebbles come together to form planetesimals – has remained unknown.
Part of the problem has been the fact that the Solar System, which has been our only frame of reference for centuries, formed billions of years ago. But thanks to recent discoveries (3453 confirmed exoplanets and counting), astronomers have had lots of opportunities to study other systems that are in various stages of formation. As Dr. Gonzalez explained in a Royal Astronomical Society press release:
“Until now we have struggled to explain how pebbles can come together to form planets, and yet we’ve now discovered huge numbers of planets in orbit around other stars. That set us thinking about how to solve this mystery.”
In the past, astronomers believed that “dust traps” – which are integral to planet formation – could only exist within certain environments. In these high-pressure regions, large grains of dust are slowed down to the point where they are able to come together. These regions are extremely important since they counteract the two main obstacles to planetary formation, which are drag and high-speed collisions.
Drag is caused by the effect gas has on dust grains, which causes them to slow down and eventually drift into the central star (where they are consumed). As for high-speed collisions, this is what causes large pebbles to smash into each other and break apart, thus reversing the aggregation process. Dust traps are therefore needed to ensure that dust grains are slowed down just enough so that they won’t annihilate each other when they collide.
To see just how common these dust traps were, Dr. Gonzalez and his colleagues conducted a series of computer simulations that took into account how dust in a protoplanetary disk could exert drag on the gas component – a process known as “aerodynamic drag back-reaction”. Whereas gas typically has an arresting influence on dust particles, in particularly dusty rings, the opposite can be true.
This effect has been largely ignored by astronomers up until recently, since its generally quite negligible. But as the team noted, it is an important factor in protoplanetary disks, which are known for being incredibly dusty environments. In this scenario, the effect of back-reaction is to slow inward-moving dust grains and push gas outwards where it forms high-pressure regions – i.e. “dust traps”.
Once they accounted for these effects, their simulations showed how planets form in three basic stages. In the first stage, dust grains grow in size and move inwards towards the central star. In the second, the now pebble-sized larger grains accumulate and slow down. In the third and final stage, the gas is pushed outwards by the back-reaction, creating the dust trap regions where it accumulates.
These traps then allow the pebbles to aggregate to form planetesimals, and eventually planet-sized worlds. With this model, astronomers now have a solid idea of how planetary formation goes from dusty disks to planetesimals coming together. In addition to resolving a key question as to how the Solar System came to be, this sort of research could prove vital in the study of exoplanets.
Ground-based and space-based observatories have already noted the presence of dark and bright rings that are forming in protoplanetary disks around distant stars – which are believed to be dust traps. These systems could provide astronomers with a chance to test this new model, as they watch planets slowly come together. As Dr. Gonzalez indicated:
“We were thrilled to discover that, with the right ingredients in place, dust traps can form spontaneously, in a wide range of environments. This is a simple and robust solution to a long standing problem in planet formation.”
TW Hydrae is a special star. Located 175 light years from Earth in the constellation Hydra the Water Snake, it sits at the center of a dense disk of gas and dust that astronomers think resembles our solar system when it was just 10 million years old. The disk is incredibly clear in images made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which employs 66 radio telescopes sensitive to light just beyond that of infrared. Spread across more than 9 miles (15 kilometers), the ALMA array acts as a gigantic single telescope that can make images 10 times sharper than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomers everywhere point their telescopes at TW Hydraebecause it’s the closest infant star in the sky. With an age of between 5 and 10 million years, it’s not even running on hydrogen fusion yet, the process by which stars convert hydrogen into helium to produce energy. TW Hydrae shines from the energy released as it contracts through gravity. Fusion and official stardom won’t begin until it’s dense enough and hot enough for fusion to fire up in its belly.
We see most protoplanetary disks at various angles, but TW’s has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth, giving astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete disk around the star. The new images show amazing detail, revealing a series of concentric bright rings of dust separated by dark gaps. There’s even indications that a planet with an Earth-like orbit has begun clearing an orbit.
“Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that TW Hydrae hosts a prominent disk with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce,” said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and lead author on a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Pronounced gaps that show up in the photos above are located at 1.9 and 3.7 billion miles (3-6 billion kilometers) from the central star, similar to the average distances from the sun to Uranus and Pluto in the solar system. They too are likely to be the results of particles that came together to form planets, which then swept their orbits clear of dust and gas to sculpt the remaining material into well-defined bands. ALMA picks up the faint emission of submillimeter light emitted by dust grains in the disk, revealing details as small as 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) or the distance of Earth from the sun
“This is the highest spatial resolution image ever of a protoplanetary disk from ALMA, and that won’t be easily beaten in the future!” said Andrews.
Earlier ALMA observations of another system, HL Tauri, show that even younger protoplanetary disks — a mere 1 million years old — look remarkably similar. By studying the older TW Hydrae disk, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of our own planet and the prospects for similar systems throughout the Milky Way.
A planetary system’s early days readily tell of turmoil. Giant planets are swept from distant birthplaces into sizzling orbits close to their host star. Others are blasted away from their star into the darkness of space. And smaller bodies, like asteroids and comets, are being traded around constantly.
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have seen the latter: swarms of Pluto-size objects turning to dust around a young star. And the image is remarkable.
“This system offers us the chance to study an intriguing time around a young, Sun-like star,” said coauthor Stuartt Corder and ALMA Deputy Director in a news release. “We are possibly looking back in time here, back to when the Sun was about 2 percent of its current age.”
The young star, HD 107146, is located roughly 90 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices. Although the star itself is visible in any small telescope, ALMA can probe the star’s radically faint protoplanetary disk. This is the star’s dusty cocoon that coalesces into planets, comets and asteroids.
ALMA’s image revealed an unexpected bump in the number of millimeter-size dust grains far from the host star. This highly concentrated band spans roughly 30 to 150 astronomical units, the equivalent of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun to four times Pluto’s orbit.
So where is the extra dust coming from?
Typically, dust in the debris disk is simply left over material from the formation of planets. Early on, however, Pluto-size objects (otherwise known as planetesimals) will collide and blast themselves apart, also contributing to the dust. Certain models predict that this leads to a much higher concentration of dust in the most distant regions of the disk.
Although this is the case for HD 107146, “this is the opposite of what we see in younger primordial disks where the dust is denser near the star,” said lead author Luca Ricci from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It is possible that we caught this particular debris disk at a stage in which Pluto-size planetesimals are forming right now in the outer disk while other Pluto-size bodies have already formed closer to the star.”
Adding to this hypothesis is the fact that there’s a slight depression in the dust at 80 astronomical units, or twice Pluto’s average distance from the Sun. This could be a slight gap in the dust, where an Earth-size planet is sweeping the area clear of a debris disk.
If true, this would be the first observation of an Earth-size planet forming so far from its host star. But for now that’s a big if.
While exoplanets make the news on an almost daily basis, one of the biggest announcements occurred in 2012 when astronomers claimed the discovery of an Earth-like planet circling our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri B, a mere 4.3 light-years away. That’s almost close enough to touch.
Of course such a discovery has led to a heated debate over the last three years. While most astronomers remain skeptical of this planet’s presence and astronomers continue to study this system, computer simulations from 2008 actually showed the possibility of 11 Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B.
Now, recent research suggests that five of these computer-simulated planets have a high potential for photosynthetic life.
The 2008 study calculated the likely number of planets around Alpha Centauri B by assuming an initial protoplanetary disk populated with 400 – 900 rocks, or protoplanets, roughly the size of the Moon. They then tracked the disk over the course of 200 million years through n-body simulations — models of how objects gravitationally interact with one another over time — in order to determine the total number of planets that would form from the disk.
While the number and type of exoplanets depended heavily on the initial conditions given to the protoplanetary disk, the eight computer simulations predicted the formation of 21 planets, 11 of which resided within the habitable zone of the star.
A second team of astronomers, led by Dr. Antolin Gonzalez of the Universidad Central de Las Villas in Cuba, took these computer simulations one step further by assessing the likelihood these planets are habitable or even contain photosynthetic life.
The team used multiple measures that asses the potential for life. The Earth Similarity index “is a multi-parameter first assessment of Earth-likeness for extrasolar planets,” Dr. Gonzalez told Universe Today. It predicts (on a scale from zero to one with zero meaning no similarity and one being identical to Earth) how Earth-like a planet is based on its surface temperature, escape velocity, mean radius and bulk density.
Planets with an Earth Similar index from 0.8 – 1 are considered capable of hosting life similar to Earth’s. As an example Mars has an Earth Similar index in the range of 0.6 – 0.8. It is thus too low to support life today.
However, the Earth Similarity index alone is not an objective measure of habitability, Gonzalez said. It assumes the Earth is the only planet capable of supporting life. The team also relied on the P model for biological productivity, which takes into account the planet’s surface temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide present.
At this point in time “there is no way to predict, at least approximately, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide with the known data, or the variations from a planet to another,” Gonzalez said. Instead “we assumed a constant partial pressure of carbon dioxide for all planets simplifying the model to a function of temperature.”
Gonzalez’s team found that of the 11 computer-simulated planets in the habitable zone, five planets are prone for photosynthetic life. Their Earth Similarity index values are 0.92, 0.93, 0.87, 0.91 and 0.86. If we take into account their corresponding P model values we find that two of them have better conditions than Earth for life.
According to this highly theoretical paper: if there are planets circling our nearest neighbor, they’re likely to be teeming with life. It’s important to note that while these indexes may prove to be very valuable years down the road (when we have a handful of Earth-like planets to study), we are currently only looking for life as we know it.
The paper has been published in the Cuban journal: Revista Cubana de Fisica and is available for download here. For more information on Alpha Centauri Bb please read a paper available here published in the Astrophysical Journal.
HiCIAO near-infrared image of the protoplanetary disk around PDS 70. The circular mask hides the star itself, as well as a smaller internal disk structure. (Credit: NAOJ)
Over the past couple of decades astronomers have figured out several methods for finding planets around other stars in our galaxy. Some have revealed their presence by the slight “wobble” they impart to their host stars as they orbit, while others have been discovered as they pass in front of their stars from our perspective, briefly dimming the light we see.
Now, some astronomers think they may have identified the presence of multiple planets, based on a large gap found in the disk of gas and dust surrounding a Sun-like star 460 light-years from Earth.
Using the High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics (HiCIAO) mounted on Japan’s 8.2-meter optical-infrared Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, an international team of astronomers targeted PDS 70, a young star (10 million years old) about the same mass as the Sun located 460 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus.
The near-infrared observations made by HiCIAO reveal a protoplanetary disk surrounding PDS 70. This disk is composed of gas and dust and extends billions of miles out from the star. Quite literally the stuff that planets are made of, it’s a disk much like this that our solar system likely started out as over 4.6 billion years ago.
“Thanks to the powerful combination of the Subaru Telescope and HiCIAO, we are able to probe the disks around Sun-like stars. PDS 70 shows how our solar system may have looked in its infancy. I want to continue this kind of research to understand the history of planetary formation.”
– Team Leader Jun Hashimoto (NAOJ)
Within PDS 70’s disk are several large gaps positioned at varying distances from the star itself, appearing as dark regions in the near-infrared data. These gaps — especially the largest, located about 70 AU from the star — are thought to be the result of newly-formed planets having cleared the surrounding space of dust and smaller material. It’s also believed that multiple planets may be present since, according to the team, “no single planet, regardless of how heavy or efficient it is in its formation, is sufficient to create such a giant gap.”
In addition to the large disk structure and outer gap, PDS 70 also has a smaller disk located only 1 AU away. (This disk is obscured by the HiCIAO mask in the image above.)
Further observations will be needed to locate any actual exoplanets directly, since the light from the star and scattered light within the disk makes it difficult — if not impossible with current technology — to detect the incredibly faint light reflected by planets.
Still, it’s fascinating to come across what may very well be a solar system in its infancy, giving us a glimpse back in time to our own formation.
“Direct imaging of planets in the process of forming in protoplanetary disks would be ideal so that we can learn when, where, and how planets form,” said team leader Ruobing Dong of Princeton University.
Read more on the NAOJ website for the Subaru Observatory here.
The goal of the Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS) Project is to study the disks around less massive stars like the Sun.
Inset image: Artist’s rendition of PDS 70 and its two protoplanetary disks (NAOJ)